Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Now, Paul, what are you really saying?

Don Luskin and others have appropriately (at this point, almost ritualistically) flogged Paul Krugman for turning obesity into a partisan issue when "it just ain't so." Luskin, especially, has a great point: look at all these Democrat-aligned companies that produce food classified as bad for us. That seems to shatter Krugman's new mythos of heroic leftists who only want to promote American health, and evil right-winger food corporatists who cheer on American obesity.

Is Krugman "just making stuff up" again, or did he really sleep through his undergrad economic lectures on costs and consumer preference? They would have given him the simple explanation: most overweight people value high-calorie food (and less exercise, which is often a time cost) more than the cost of being overweight. Those basic principles would have saved him from his degeneration into "Oh this is bad so we must do this!" alarmism. But economics to him isn't the science of human action and its consequences; he's reduced it to an analytical tool for pushing his agenda. (Look at the fifth of the First Annual Jayson Blair Awards for Krugman's self-fitting description of a hack.)

We already know Krugman is an enemy of the free market, and he always needs a bogeyman to stay interesting to his readers. So we shouldn't be surprised when he, like others, prates about right-wing Illuminati-like corporate conspiracies. (Anti-capitalism, or is that anti-corporatism, still didn't stop Krugman from working for Enron.) Krugman, rufus and others of their kind are quick to spin yarns about these giants of energy, pharmaceuticals, food, etc., that they claim have such power over our lives. They inevitably declare, or at least imply as Krugman is doing, that only government has the power to stop these "evil capitalists." Anytime we try to change our consumer preferences, they say, big business coerces us back into the lifestyle they've determined for us.

I'm no apologist for big business; I'll acknowledge faster than anyone when they've become corrupt. Still, some people ascribe too much power to large companies that are only catering to consumer preference. I don't shop at Wal-Mart because I'm forced to, nor do local businesses force one of my friends (who prefers to spend his money locally) to patronize them. As long as we have free markets, consumers will have a power that no business can overcome: the choice of not buying. New Coke. The Montgomery bus system. Boycottwatch.org is one website with information on these and other boycotts, some famous, others obscure, that illustrate the reality that it's consumers' desires that shape what businesses provide, not the other way around.

You cannot "cure" (I refuse to talk about it like a disease) American obesity by changing what people eat. Ask any person who has successfully lost weight and kept it off: it works only by changing what you want. This assumes government even has any right to control our lives to such an extent. Are we free people who are responsible for ourselves, or are we subjects of the "nanny state"? Krugman practically worships paternalistic government. Walter Williams warns about it:
Each year, obesity claims the lives of 300,000 Americans and adds over $100 billion to health care costs. Should government enforce a 2,000-calorie intake limit per day? There's absolutely no dietary reason to add salt to our meals. Salt can lead to hypertension-induced heart attacks that kill thousands. Should government outlaw salt consumption? Sedentary lifestyles have been shown to lead to shorter and less healthy lives. Should there be government-mandated exercise programs?
Certainly overweight people, and smokers too, are a disproportionately greater burden (no pun intended) on insurance. Since it's easy to be just a critic, let me offer the free market alternative, which not only works, but works fairly. I don't expect Krugman to admit this, but one problem is group health insurance. By lumping a large number of people into the same category, there's no incentive for an individual to significantly reduce his risk. As Radley Balko wrote last year for TCS,
The important point here is that it's time we tailored health insurance to health risk, just as we do with every other variety of insurance. Health insurance companies have been reluctant to do so due to perceived barriers from the federal government. Those barriers don't exist.
When individuals' health insurance premiums are based on each individual's risk, like automobile and life insurance policies are, right there is a direct incentive for higher-risk policyholders. The pocketbook is often a mightier incentive than considerations of future health, so they'll want to healthier food and exercise more -- and Krugman won't have to worry about society bearing extra costs for overweight people.


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